Tapping into your interests can reignite the language spark

Tap your interests to reignite your language fire

Some language learning tips are so fundamental, that we come across them again and again. And my own recent experience reminded me of one the most transformative and powerful: personal interests are the greatest motivator.

For the past few months, I’ve been slogging away at Icelandic. For the most part, I’ve used quite traditional textbooks to learn from. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this; in fact, I love formal grammar (I’m weird like that), and I learn a lot that way.

But in terms of speaking, I’d reached something of an impasse. It had all started to feel a bit one-note – solid, but not exciting.

That was, until Söngvakeppnin.

Söngvakeppnin is Iceland’s annual televised contest to select an entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. Now, I loved Eurovision for as long as I can remember, and I’ve often used it in language learning and teaching as a fun source of target language. And it turned out that a bit of it was just what I needed to reignite my Icelandic fire.

Fire and ice

Now, new learning had a focus. Articles started to pop up about the contest on Icelandic broadcaster website ruv.is and news outlet mbl.is. The songs – all in Icelandic – suddenly appeared on Spotify. And, most excitingly, I found out that I could watch the selection programmes live via the Icelandic broadcaster’s official streaming service, Sarpurinn.

Even though the language level was high, I wanted to consume all the information I came across. I’d translate articles carefully to get all the latest contest gossip. I’d listen to interviews and listen more intently than ever to get all the details of what was being said. In learning terms, I was on fire. Much like an Icelandic volcano.

All at once, I had a captivating way into Icelandic language and culture. And specifically, thanks to a very patient (or masochistic?) teacher on iTalki, to talk about. Preparing for a conversational lesson on something you find intensely interesting is no longer homework, or a tedious slog – it’s a huge amount of fun. It’s hard work without the slog!

Gaining from your interests

The results were clear. I could chat endlessly on the topic. It wasn’t passive chat, either – I was asking questions and was eager to hear the answers. I was totally switched on to using the language practically and purposefully.

It wasn’t that I was suddenly an expert at speaking Icelandic – I know that I was still making plenty of errors. But this time, I was stumbling less when I hit them; they held me back just a little less. I was speaking less self-consciously, and I felt like I was flying in the language.

Isn’t that what fluency is about? Communicating in a flowing manner, if not necessarily perfectly in every grammatical respect?

Go beyond your textbooks

People feel compelled to follow formal language courses when starting out. But never forget to seek out what interests you, even if you are just beginning in a language. If it interests you enough, you will find a way to understand it – and you will learn. Find what you love, and give it the target language treatment!

Finally, take heed from the sentiment of this, my favourite song from this year’s Söngvakeppnin, and aldrei gefast upp – never give up!

A calendar page, which you might use to beat procrastination!

Procrastination, begone! The 12 Week Year [Review]

Confession time: I get hopelessly lost in optimistic procrastination. I always think I have time for everything.

That goes for language learning, too. I start with great intentions of doing a bit every day, yet quickly fall behind when everyday life demands my attention too. I’ll forget to do my daily dose of Anki, letting the cards pile up. I won’t read the daily news in my chosen language, like I promised myself. I’ll put off listening to that podcast until I’m already two or three episodes behind. Then I’ll beat myself up for getting so lazy!

Time for some discipline!

Enter The 12 Week Year by Brian Moran. It’s a productivity guide that I took a punt on when I spotted it on Amazon Kindle Deal of the Day, admittedly with some initial scepticism. I love the idea of productivity frameworks for organising my language learning, but most books are a poor fit. They’re generally either too business-oriented, or too complicated to apply to everyday learning.

This one takes quite a fresh approach. You start with your ultimate vision, the end goal you see yourself at in a number of years. For linguists, that might be ‘complete fluency / zero accent in the foreign language’. It could also be something more concrete, like ‘managing without any difficulties in any situation when I’m in Country X etc.’, or ‘passing my Spanish exam with top marks’.

Then, you break it down to an achievable, shorter-term goal. What would a major step towards that end point be? Again, for linguists, it could be ‘going shopping in Country X and using only my target language’. The book then encourages you to break that down into the even shorter term goal windows, namely 12 weeks.

Zap procrastination!

Why 12 weeks? Well, as the book explains, when setting ourselves goals, we often go with the calendar year as our window of action. We will set ourselves resolutions on January 1st, and aim to achieve X, Y or Z by the end of the year. This regularly fails due to vast amount of time we perceive before we need to act. We put off action at the beginning of the year, meaning to catch up towards the end. 12 week windows are much tighter, creating a greater sense of immediacy between ‘now’ and ‘achievement’, and providing an extremely effective vaccine to procrastination.

With that 12 week goal set, you can then start planning your weekly ‘tactics’ to achieve them. These might be one-time, set goals like “Read chapter 2 of Textbook X”. But they can also be general, regular tasks, like “Listen to a podcast in the target language at least once a week”, or “Do your Anki flashcards every day” – the kind of things you should be doing frequently in order to keep your new language blooming.

Keeping score

Now here’s the bit that really works for me: you score yourself weekly! Take all of those tactics, and you turn them into a weekly score. This can simply consist of crossing off list items on a paper plan each week. However, I like to use Evernote for making my lists, as you easily can add tick boxes to keep track. Here’s a sample weekly list from one of my plans:

Evernote tick list

Evernote tick list

At the end of the week, you tot up your score as a percentage, aiming to hit over 85%. This turns execution into a fun thing, a challenge to yourself. You’ll find yourself positively buzzing to tick boxes off early in the week in order to hit the threshold. Executing tasks for score-boosting ticks is surprisingly addictive!

It’s as simple as that. And it works!

The book is full of extra tips and tools for fine-tuning your plan, but the general idea is amazingly simple to implement and work into your life. It turns each day into a bit of a game for me, and I’ve cut my language procrastination right down.

Teachers could adapt these techniques for their students, too. Devise a weekly check-list of all the tasks they should be doing to improve steadily. There’s lots of scope there for adding competitive elements here, and comparing productivity rates at the end of every week. Who knows – they might find it so useful that they apply it elsewhere in their lives.

If you’re in a vocabulary rut, or find yourself falling behind and running out of time with your language goals, The 12 Week Year is worth a shot.